The Fantasy Case Against Justin Jefferson: Lightning Must Strike Twice

After a sensational rookie season, Justin Jefferson must defy the odds to do it all over again
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The summer is here, meaning we're getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2020. However, that latter exercise isn't easy, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.

Case in point. In 2004, Michael Clayton emerged into a fantasy asset as a rookie with 80 catches, 1,193 yards, and seven touchdowns for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He finished 14th in fantasy points and went on to become a high-round selection in most 2005 fantasy drafts. Fantasy folks just trusted that because Clayton was so good in his rookie campaign, he’d be just as good or better the following season. Unfortunately, those who sunk a prominent pick into the former LSU product ended up with a bust.

Clayton missed two games in 2005, and his average stats per game went downhill. He caught 32 passes for 372 yards and didn't score a touchdown, and saw his points-per-game average decline from 15.5 to a mere five. Clayton wasn't fantasy-relevant again.

The point here is that few folks saw this coming because Clayton was so good in 2004. That leads me to this series, aptly named “The Fantasy Case Against…” where I’ll do my due diligence in looking at players who everyone in fantasy land seems to think is a sure bet to remain uber-productive after finding a high level of success in past seasons.

This isn't me trying to sway you from picking these players; it's just something for you to think about and make your own decisions on players ahead of your fantasy drafts. The only thing predictable about the NFL and fantasy football is that it's often unpredictable (see Michael Thomas last year), so do with this information what you will.

I've already broken down Justin Herbert, Alvin Kamara, Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley, and Michael Carter in my "The Fantasy Case Against" series. Now let’s take a look at the biggest breakout fantasy wide receiver of 2020, Vikings superstar Justin Jefferson.

The Fantasy Case Against ...

2020 Season

Jefferson opened last season slowly, seeing a mere six total targets while scoring just 12 fantasy points in his first two games. He was dropped in a lot of fantasy leagues at that point. That would end up being a massive mistake. The LSU rookie would rank fourth in fantasy points among wideouts the rest of the season. In fact, the only three receivers ahead of him were studs Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and Stefon Diggs.

Jefferson would finish with 88 catches, an NFL rookie record 1,400 receiving yards, and seven touchdowns. He also averaged 17.1 fantasy points a game, including 18.7 points in his final 14 games, while finishing sixth in fantasy points at the position overall.

Did You Know?

Jefferson’s 1,400 receiving yards as a rookie were 23 more than the previous record set by Anquan Boldin, who had 1,377 yards as a member of the Arizona Cardinals in 2003. Jefferson, Boldin, Randy Moss (1998), and Odell Beckham Jr. (2014) are the lone first-year wideouts to have finished with 1,300-plus receiving yards since 1970. In all, a mere 19 rookie wide receivers have recorded 1,000-plus yards in the last 50 years.

Jefferson's 274.2 fantasy points rank fourth-most among rookie receivers, behind just Moss, OBJ, and Boldin. His 17.1 fantasy points per game average is also fourth-most at the position among rookie wideouts since 1970. Jefferson's 88 receptions are the sixth-most in the last 50 years among first-year receivers, behind only Boldin, Michael Thomas (2016), OBJ, Eddie Royal (2008 – not a misprint), and Terry Glenn (1996).

Click here to view this spreadsheet as an image

Historical Trends

Since 1970, 16 wide receivers have finished their rookie seasons with 1,000 or more receiving yards and at least seven touchdowns. Most of these occurrences have been in the last 18 years, which is a surprise to no one considering the rule changes and increased offensive success players and teams have had in the last two decades.

With the data now at hand, let's examine how these rookies did in the stat sheets in their second NFL seasons. As you can see from the embedded chart, 11 wideouts saw their fantasy point per game average decline. Kelvin Benjamin missed his second NFL season with an injured knee, but it's notable that he finished as the WR28 and finished with a decline of almost two full fantasy points during his next full campaign (2016).

After Benjamin, Michael Clayton (2005), and Boldin (2004), the two biggest decliners missed at least two games as sophomores. Boldin missed six games and was far less effective on a points-per-game basis (17.7 points as a rookie down to 12.3). If we include Benjamin’s second full season, a total of seven of the 15 rookies in this research exercise saw a decline of 1.8 or more fantasy points per game as NFL sophomores.

On the flip side, four wide receivers (A.J. Green, A.J. Brown, Marques Colston, Cris Collinsworth) saw an increase in their second season. Moss and Thomas saw minimal declines, and John Jefferson and Joey Galloway were around a point and a half less.

In terms of positional rankings, five of the 15 receivers experienced a decline of 10 or more spots (including Benjamin in 2016). The other nine either dropped two or fewer spots or were better in their overall ranking at the position in their second NFL seasons. This particular trend seems to bode well for Jefferson as he heads into 2021.

Coaching Changes

The Vikings are moving to Klint, the son of Gary Kubiak, as the offensive coordinator this season. He was the team’s quarterbacks coach in each of the last two seasons, with Gary serving as the OC. Assuming much of Klint’s tendencies will mirror his dad’s, it’s notable that the Vikings had a pair of top-10 fantasy wideouts, Jefferson (WR6) and Adam Thielen (WR10), in 2021. Wide receivers have had 80-plus catches in a single season 15 times in Gary’s system, including Jefferson’s impressive 88 last season.

It also makes 15 times a wideout has posted a top-12 season under the elder Kubiak. Another 11 players have finished WR13-WR24. If Klint follows in his dad’s coaching footsteps, Jefferson should continue to see more than his share of chances to shine.

Verdict

It’s tough to look past what Jefferson did as a rookie and not rank him among the top 10 players at his position heading into 2021. I have him ranked eighth in my most recent redraft rankings. But everything went right for Jefferson in his rookie season, and duplicating his record-setting rookie numbers is going to be a difficult task. Remember, more than half of the rookie wideouts with 1,000-plus yards and at least seven scores saw a decline of at least 1.8 points a game during their second NFL season.

Jefferson is likely to fall into that range, which would put him in the Julio Jones or Chris Godwin level based on last season’s point-per-game averages. That’s not a bad thing. That's 2020 Jones and Godwin though they both took steps back to the WR2 range. So it’s not going to put him in the top 10 among fantasy wideouts for this season. 

Also, keep in mind that seven of the 15 wideouts (including Benjamin) in this research failed to produce 1,000 yards in their second season. While I don't see the same fate for Jefferson (aside from long-term injuries), fantasy fans should expect at least some level of regression in receptions and yardage. He set the statistical bar so high for himself as a rookie; it'll be rough for him to match or exceed those massive totals in 2021.

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Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!